By Darren Franich
June 06, 2012 at 06:16 PM EDT

The Game: You’ve heard of Call of Duty? Powerhouse videogame franchise? Burgeoning national pastime? Excuse for foulmouthed 12-year-olds and a significant number of men to spend hours screaming at a TV screen? Right, so take that and add robots. (Available on Nov. 30 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC)

What We Saw: First, we saw a level from the Black Ops 2 campaign, set in 2025 in the midst of an invasion of Los Angeles. As the level begins, you are inside a car with the president of the United States, then you proceed down a collapsing freeway into an urban war zone. Inevitably you wind up flying a plane. Inevitably that plane winds up crashing. Far more intriguing was the second sequence we saw — a Strike Force mission set in Singapore. “Strike Force missions” are a new addition to the CoD series, during which you take control of different soldiers/weapons/robots. Keep in mind: Absolutely none of this will interest CoD hardliners, who just buy the game for the multiplayer and the zombies.

The Good: There’s no reason for Activision to shake up their cash-cow franchise. Some fans grumbled about Modern Warfare 3, but those fans still bought Modern Warfare 3, and there’s no indication that they won’t keep buying new Call of Duty games for the foreseeable future, if only to have something to grumble about. But Black Ops 2 shows that Activision (and developer Treyarch) is willing to try something a little new. The campaign level that we saw featured a host of new futuristic weapons and battle tactics, including a sniper rifle that can shoot through walls and, well, lots of robots. And besides offering a host of new game play possibilities, the Strike Force missions are the centerpiece of a new branching-narrative system. And the vision of an American metropolis under siege by a foreign power sure looks impressive…

The Not-So-Good: …or at least, it would look impressive, if we hadn’t seen basically the same thing sans robots in Modern Warfare 3. Scrape away the future tech, and the Black Ops 2 campaign looks a lot like every other Call of Duty campaign. It’s beautifully rendered. It features a lot of yelling. And the experience of playing the game is heavily mediated by disruptive cinematics and giant flashing arrows that might as well scream “GO HERE. HIT THIS BUTTON.”

In the last few years, playing a Call of Duty campaign has begun to feel like to riding a motorcycle with training wheels. As an example of this, look to a telling moment from the L.A. level. When you climb into a fighter jet and exclaim that you’ve never flown anything, the man on the radio says: “Don’t worry, the flight computer should handle most of it.” So now we know: In the future, the Air Force will still be idiot proof.

Excitement Level: On the good side, there’s the promise of diversified game play, the raft of new future weapons, and the robots. On the bad side, there’s the creeping sense that we’ve seen this all before. Even with the zombies, this is a 5 for anyone who isn’t hankering for new multiplayer maps.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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